What Constitutes a Cleavage in Political Science?


The very definition of a cleavage is the existence of stable and aligned demographics (e.g., race, age, income, education, religion), attitudes (e.g., civil rights, income redistribution, private property rights, patriotism), and party choice (e.g., Democrats, Republicans, Green, Libertarian); within the positional structure and temporal structure of society.

The temporal structure of a cleavage is complex. The temporal structure involves endurance and the literature may call it ‘stability.’ Research of the temporal structure happens through the evidence of continuity through time; for instance, analyzing political behavior trends persistent in the past to the present.

The positional structure of a cleavage is complex. A positional [spatial] structure accounts for the fixed arrangements, spatially denoting the place of the parts upon multiple dimensions. Upcoming literature may call it ‘alignment.’ Regulated terms [concepts] occupy position in space, perhaps on a few axis; for instance, analyzing the political behavior relationship to particular social characteristics.

Lipset and Rokkan [1967] pioneered cleavage research. Their research focused on the west European party system. Accordingly, the 19th and early 20th century political movements manifested national and industrial revolutions. From these, Lipset and Rokkan determined four cleavages: centre/periphery, religious/secular, urban/rural, and capital/labor. Notably, the divisions that political scientists unearth in society appear to remain “frozen” alongside subsiding political animosity.

Cleavages may form via many habits though actions by agents. Institutional rules and configurations showcase causeways to the clinging that occurs in political moments (e.g., the breaking down of the Berlin Wall). This is of salience, since, voters chose new parties because as the old parties collapsed or were [often] outlawed (e.g. communists).

According to Bartolini and Mair, profound socio-political cleavages are encapsulated. These cleavages were often derived from historical and social structures, which were put into governance through representatives, whom were members of political parties.

Bartolini and Mair researched this former occurrence in Europe. For decades, representatives had decided upon the public’s rules. On the other hand, sometimes these rules hindered participants’ calls for political progress. Elected representatives may declare war, or, deny headscarves, etc. Research indicates locations where the same interests held power for extended periods of time. This supports evidence for cleavage, but not necessarily of democracy.

Lipset and Rokkan state that cleavages have been frozen since the 1920s. On other hand, shouldn’t party systems constantly show low levels of volatility in order to contain stability? Has Lipset and Rokkan’s frozen finding thawed aplenty in light of electoral change? Bartolini and Mair put forth that neither of the former two aggregate volatility propositions adequately measure the stability or hold of traditional cleavages.

First, the “freezing of cleavages” meant the freezing of political alternatives. These alternatives may not be within one party, rather, within the opposition of blocks of parties. Thus, measures of individual party volatility will not be superlative. Cleavage lines; such as class or religion, should be measured between the party blocks on opposing sides of the cleavage line. However, these are different measures formatively (e.g., block volatility and within-block volatility).

Second, total volatility doesn’t quite indicate cleavage persistence. Total volatility accounts for too many factors which impact influence. On the other hand, in Europe, Barloni and Mair find that class cleavage is the standardizing design of Western European party system lines. Total volatility may thus chase the Lipset-Rokkan “freezing hypothesis.”

Bartolini and Mair research cleavage decline evidence; and, they chart the variability of total volatility distances. As Lipset and Rokkan claim that cleavages were frozen upon the consolidation of the Mass party systems across Europe. This occurred amidst the advent of universal suffrage in the nineteen twenties. Thereafter, the theory goes, the electoral market closed its gates to new party languages or emerging politics—to unorthodox entries. A powerful bias existed empirically for the status-quo class-cleavage. Of course, today political scientists find that the Mass party has been replaced by the Cartel party in Europe(and even in new democracies).

According to Bartolini and Mair, cleavages contain a fundamental bias towards stability. France and Germany had the highest level of mean total volatility in the study via standard deviation. Class-cleavage specifically reveals remarkable stability. The volatility values are positively skewed with a peak so far before the mean one can argue that we have some valid proof. In the Bartolini and Mair study, Norway was a most deviant case. Norway was quite unpredictable when compared to similar states. The authors did not find a verifiable reason for this anomaly.

Electoral consolidation may require long-term stalemate, which may illuminate the “freezing” of Lipset and Rokkan’s research frame. Yet there is a paradox to note. This long-term perspective of stability eludes the short-term factors of competitiveness and democratic accountability. To be sure, we should see electoral change and notice instability; for different political parties should lose and win power. Indeed, a closer inspection of instability will help clarify stability, and vice versa.

Political scientists have categorized different ‘stability’ phenomena. First, violence is never found; second, democracy has endured without returning to dictatorship; third, a legitimate constitutional order is observable; fourth, structural change has not occurred; fifth, multifaceted societal attributes are sound; and sixth, a stable pattern of behavior. Thus, electoral behavior is of salience to our discussion.

Under aggregate electoral stability; of salience are individual voting behavior, and, an absence of structural change. The instability of electoral change at the individual level is relevant when focusing on the structural transformations within the party systems’ ranks. Bartolini and Mair divide a century into four electoral stages:

  • 1885- 1917  entails mass mobilization [and formation of the Left],
  • 1918-‘44      exhibits the inter-war years [and formation of the Right],
  • 1945-‘65      brings about stable electoral politicking,
  • 1966-‘85      is perceived to be one of high electoral volatility.

Electoral volatility is relevant to our understanding of stability. Electoral volatility can be very intricate. Simple measures quantify net electoral change between two consecutive elections. Political scientists call this by different names in the literature: electoral instability or electoral mobility; electoral swing or electoral fluidity. Thus, stability is an important and complicated aspect of cleavage.

Cleavage is the alignment, stability and temporal formation. Narrowly, imagine that the research of a political behavior study affirms stability in its temporal structure; and, affirms alignment in the positional structure. Hence, cleavage is scientifically observed. Additionally, when only temporal structure is high, the literature refers to that as ‘inertia.’ And when only positional structure is high, the literature refers to that as ‘re-alignment.’ And when neither structure is high, the literature refers to that as ‘de-alignment.’

Cleavage affirms a temporal and positional structure in political choice, attitudes, and demographic aspects. To determine the structural relationships as pertinent to political choice, one must research values, socio-demographics, and group consciousness; assuring positional and temporal structural alliances, in the midst of stability and alignment (Deegan-Krause and Enyedi). Upon reflection, the clear concept should illuminate the party core and party bloc. Thus, by observing the political cleavage structure, one may develop a theory for political parties.

In political science, cleavages occur where a society breaks into separate norms. Cleavages may be determinable and predictable. For example, a cleavage is: those religious and those non-religious, workers versus owners, city dwellers versus the farmers (Lipset and Rokkan). Thus, there are two recurring models of parties, which are based on either dimension, or, cleavage. Depending on the model, which will depend on circumstances, differing factions will be branded as a political party.



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